On B.C.’s Indigenous Nurses Day, healthcare workers celebrated for ‘answering the call to justice’

On Indigenous Nurses Day, Indigenous nurses are recognized for “answering the call to justice” in their leadership transforming and navigating colonial healthcare systems.

Indigenous Nurses Day in B.C. falls on May 10, and organizers say it specifically acknowledges the contributions of Indigenous nurses who have fought for justice and cultural safety in the healthcare system. “To all those who continue to work so close with the people, our hands are held high in your honour this week and every other day of the year,” says Lisa Bourque-Bearskin, an Indigenous research chair of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Bourque-Bearskin, a Nehiyaw iskwêw (Cree woman) from Beaver Lake Cree Nation is also an associate professor with the Thompson River University’s School of Nursing. Her teaching career came after working 25 years as a registered nurse, she says.

“Uplifting and inspiring nurses for change, we must speak up and out against social injustice,” she says.

Indigenous Nurses Day takes place during a wider celebration for National Nursing Week which has the slogan this year of “We Answer the Call,” developed by the Canadian Nurses Association as a way to highlight the courage and commitment that nurses have in their work. This theme has been expanded to “answering the call to justice” by the Indigenous Health Nursing Research (IHNR) team based at Thompson Rivers University, led by Bourque-Bearskin.

“Nurses should advocate for change based on the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” she says.

“To the Indigenous nurses who have always held a distinct and prominent role within Indigenous societies, both as life-givers and through traditional knowledges, medicines and healing practices — your work is undeniably the touchstones of caring practices during the COVID and opioid crisis we are facing today.”

National Nurses Week is pinned to the birthday of Florence Nightingale, long held as an icon of nursing and Victorian culture. She was a product of the Victorian colonial mindset, and believed it was necessary to impose British culture. In Nightingale’s words, “would be simply preserving their barbarism for the sake of preserving their lives.”

“Dismantling the image of the colonial angels in nursing is a serious call for social action,” says Bourque-Bearskin.

“The continued veneration of Nightingale,” is explored by Natalie Stake-Doucet in Beyond Nightingale: The Racist Lady with the Lamp. Stake-Doucet is a registered nurse and activist who studies the socio-political structure of hospitals in relation to nurses and nursing work.

The pedestal of Nightingale “tells a story of racism and exclusion within nursing,” writes Stake-Doucet.

“We cannot claim to teach nursing advocacy and leadership when our model for these concepts was a Victorian bigot,” she continues.

“The goal of this article is not to erase Nightingale from our history books; on the contrary, I’m proposing that we get to actually know her and what her legacy means for nursing… We lose nothing by relegating Nightingale to her rightful place in history. We gain critical insight, growth, and a richer understanding of what nursing is.”

Answering the call to social justice begins with critical nursing discourse, says Bourque-Bearskin. She calls for an Indigenous lens to bring innovation and perspectives rooted in traditional knowledge, culture and land.

CIHR’s research program recognizes the full range of nurses: from teachers, to those practicing, to “grandmother nurses” who advise and hearten others.

The program also recognizes nursing students, already inspiring their peers with their dedication.

This research program is grounded in Bourque-Bearskin’s own Nehiyaw teachings of mâmawoh kamâtowin, which means “coming together to help each other,” she says.

Bourque-Bearskin sees this week as an opportunity to highlight the special role Indigenous nurses hold, in their communities and in society at large.

“Indigenous nurses give that authentic life-giving force to truth telling while reconciling the ascriptions that have been historically embedded into the flesh of Indigenous Peoples,” she says.

From risks to rights

On November 26, 2020, an independent investigation found that Indigenous-specific racism, stereotyping and discrimination in B.C.’s healthcare system is widespread.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s report In Plain Sight included testimonies of over 9,000 people, including patients, witnesses and healthcare workers.

The report revealed that 59 per cent of Indigenous healthcare workers surveyed had experienced colleagues saying discriminatory or hurtful comments in front of them. It also showcased how experiencing or witnessing racial prejudice at work severely impacted them.

With the release of the report, Turpel-Lafonde issued 24 recommendations to address the problem.

“Radical reconciliation from risks to rights, without having to say we’re sorry, is the cornerstone of nurses caring activism and leadership to support health systems transformation,” says Bourque-Bearskin.

She seeks to educate and empower nurses through the difficulty of witnessing the unsafe care and poor access to health care services for many Indigenous Peoples “stemming from systemic racism, marginalization, biased informed care and discriminatory treatment calls us to action.”

That impetus inspires Bourque-Bearskin and Indigenous nurses to seek alternate possibilities to better health care.

Currently she is working with communities and her peers in health care to enhance Indigenous nursing knowledge and social determinants of health.

Her focus is on Indigenous wellness that “maintains the cultural integrity of nurse practice and supports Indigenous clients’ sovereignty.”
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